It has been 71 years since the end of the Second World War. Both Europe and Asia have been rebuilt. European nations are not hostile towards each other, and many are members of the EU and NATO. The US has a close relationship with both Japan and Germany, its former wartime enemies. The average American doesn't have hostilities towards Japan or Germany, and the citizens of both of these nations generally don't share a negative image towards the US. However, bitterness towards Japan amongst a few Asian countries still remain for its wartime atrocities, particularly in South Korea. In fact it is so bitter in the Republic of Korea (ROK) that in a recent poll, South Korean citizens had a more positive view towards their arch enemy, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un than of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Many Americans are either unaware of this, or wonder why two strong allies of the US could have such a terrible relationship. Why is this, and why do South Koreans hold such bitter feelings towards Japan 7 decades after the war ended?
Japan is now a democratic nation that has developed positive relations with many nations that it once occupied. Many countries, like the Philippines, (which I would argue was treated far more harshly than Korea under Japanese occupation) Taiwan, Singapore and as of late Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam have all developed very constructive relationships with Japan. Yet South Korea refuses to budge. Although, recently the two nations have participated in military exercises along with the US in order to deter against North Korean aggression, this hasn't bettered relations between the two nations. It’s simply an “enemy of my enemy” situation. South Koreans largely still hold Japanese in contempt for actions committed during the first half of the 20th century and continue to paint Japan as a terrible nation to this day.
Many Koreans hold bitter animosity towards Japan for its brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Under the 35 years of Japanese rule, the Imperial Japanese government practiced censorship, the killing of protesters, forced labor, lethal experiments on prisoners and the most pressing issue to this day: sex slaves used by the Imperial Japanese Military, commonly known as comfort women. The atrocities committed by the Japanese Empire on Korea are terrible and sickening, and Korea's anger is understandable. However, the government of South Korea has resorted to some radical measures to enact revenge on anyone who might have participated in occupation-era atrocities.
One example of Korea's ridiculous behavior is in 2006, then-South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun appointed an investigation commission to locate the descendants of 친일파(Chinilpa) or pro-Japanese collaborators during Japanese occupation. In 2010, the commission concluded its report, and 168 South Korean citizens' property were seized by the government. Their crime: their ancestors had collaborated with the Japanese occupiers more than half a century ago. Korea is so vehemently anti-Japanese, that they punish their own citizens for simply being related to individuals who were Japanese sympathizers.
The issue today is that nearly all the men who were responsible for those crimes are dead, and the war has been over for 71 years. There comes a point where people need to move on from a tragedy and realize that times have changed. But alas, individuals and groups often hold these generations long grudges to distract from their own problems and shift the blame onto someone else. We see this in the United States with many black activist groups demanding reparations for slavery 150 years after it was abolished. Korea resembles a similar type of behavior with their demands for reparations for the use of comfort women. Something that the Japanese government finally caved into last fall.
On December 28th, 2015, Japan agreed to pay ￥1 Billion ($8.3 million) to the 46 former comfort women who are still alive. Following the payment, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said “We should not drag this problem into the next generation." He and South Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed that this payment and apology would make the matter of comfort women “finally and irreversibly resolved.” The government of Japan is trying to resolve this issue and move on to develop better relations with South Korea. Prime Minister Abe also phoned President Park to repeat an apology made by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. "Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women," Kishida expressed to the press. With reparations and yet another apology made to Korea (as numerous have been made in the past), many would think that the two countries could finally move on from this issue. Each surviving comfort woman have received $90,000, and their families $18,000 each. Yet, Koreans in large claim that the apology was “not good enough” and the payment wasn't sufficient. This type of behavior leads one to believe that Koreans will never be satisfied with anything that Japan will do to better relations, so why even indulge them? Why should today's Japanese continue to feel guilt for an action that they themselves did not commit? Why should they have to pay for the reparations, when they did nothing wrong?
The most ironic part of this entire dispute is the hypocrisy on behalf of South Korea, when they themselves have committed equally horrendous wartime atrocities while participating in the US-led war in Vietnam. Many know of the horrific Mai Lai massacre committed by US troops during the war, but the documentation of the multiple massacres conducted by the military forces of South Korea have largely been ignored or covered up. The truth is, that around 5,000 unarmed civilians were brutally murdered by the South Korean military from 1964 to 1973. Cases of entire villages with men, women and children all being executed, and sex slavery of young Vietnamese women by Korean soldiers have been reported. This sounds very similar to what the Japanese did to many Asian nations. So why hasn't there been an apology or reparations for the atrocities committed by South Korean troops? Why hasn't the South Korean government even acknowledged that these gruesome killings even occurred? It is because if this was brought up and became widely known by the international community, the Korean Government would look pretty hypocritical. Most Koreans either don't know that these massacres even occurred, or deny that they happened.
This article isn't supposed to be a criticism of Korea or Korean culture. But it is a criticism of their unwillingness to move on. It is also a criticism of their hypocrisy of demanding that Japan continue to pay additional reparations for actions committed over 70 years ago, when Korea turns a blind eye to their own atrocities committed in an even more recent timeframe. At least Japan acknowledges the atrocities that were committed on their country's behalf and have attempted to mend ties with South Korea. On the other hand, Korea refuses to even address the actions committed by their military 50 years ago in Vietnam. Every nation and society has blood on its hands. If you look back far enough in history, you'll be able to find out that every culture at one point eliminated another, or took another country's land. But, how long should we hold grudges towards a nation after an atrocity has been committed? 50 years? 100 years? 1,000 years? Forever? There comes a point where we must let bygones be bygones and realize that nations change and should no longer be held responsible for actions committed generations earlier. If not, progress can never be made, and societies will end up hating each other for generations and not even knowing why.